Vancouver is facing a dramatic shift as a fragmented rookie council tackles the affordable housing crisis when it meets for the first time Tuesday and considers motions including one aimed at undoing a zoning change allowing duplexes in any single-family neighbourhood.
Of the 10 councillors elected last month, eight are new. Since 2011, Vancouver’s mayor has enjoyed the support of a majority of councillors who also belonged to his own party. No more.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart was elected as an independent, partly on a promise to significantly increase the supply of low-cost housing. One of the strategies for doing that is allowing more density in neighbourhoods that haven’t traditionally had it, even if residents there object.
But after winning the mayor’s chair by the thinnest of margins, he has also worked to cultivate consensus. That hopefulness on council will be tested this week − five of the 10 councillors belong to the right-leaning Non-Partisan Association and three are Green Party members. The approach of both parties to housing doesn’t necessarily cleave to Mr. Stewart’s vision.
The new motions could show the public exactly which side the councillors are on as they decide on a wide range of issues.
“I’m a bit worried about some of these very divisive ones coming up so closely,” Green Party Councillor Michael Wiebe said.
Mr. Wiebe is hoping that the council meeting Tuesday will demonstrate that this very different Vancouver council can display an ability to find consensus. Because past councils have been dominated by one party, there was no need for compromise.
“It will help to showcase that we’re trying to do things differently,” said Mr. Wiebe, fresh from his term as a commissioner on the park board, where there was also no majority party. “But we could end up battling and divisiveness makes me nervous.”
The initiative most likely to set off a council and citywide fight is the one from new Non-Partisan Association Councillor Colleen Hardwick, who has put forward a motion to rescind the previous council’s duplex decision.
Ms. Hardwick says in her motion that there was “no meaningful public consultation” prior to the decision – something that housing advocates who supported the vote say is untrue − as well as significant public opposition.
Rescinding the recent council policy would require another public hearing and a new vote, a process that one former long-serving councillor says could be politically disastrous, especially for the Green Party if it sides with the centre-right NPA.
Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr voted against the duplex decision when it first came to council, though the Greens have not indicated what they’ll do this time.
“This vote is going to be revealing,” said former councillor Gordon Price, now affiliated with the Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue. “It’s going to be the first indication whether the Greens and NPA are going to be the majority. And the Greens run the risk of aligning themselves with the NPA NIMBYs on this.”
It’s one in a raft of policy resolutions that take an entirely different approach than former mayor Gregor Robertson’s administration did. Those motions range from a move to set up an opioid task force to a request for millions more from the city for a Downtown Eastside social-housing project.
On top of that, city planners have put forward three projects that require rezoning for the new council to decide on. Two of the proposals made under the city’s current Rental 100 program give developers incentives to build rental.
It’s a program that the parties now dominating council have frequently criticized for not providing truly affordable housing, since maximum rents have been set at around $1,600 for a studio and going up from there for larger units.
New Green Party Councillor Pete Fry said the party’s councillors will be meeting this weekend to discuss what to do about the duplex motion.
Mr. Fry had said before the election that the matter wasn’t a priority for reversal and he repeated again this week that he’s more concerned about any overall losses in affordable housing.
Only three applications have come to the city in the two months since duplex zoning was voted on and there are no signs that there is about to be a deluge of other applications in coming months.
But, for some new councillors, the policy is an important symbol.
“It was one of those issues where people didn’t feel heard, and I’m not sure duplexes across the city improves anything,” said the NPA’s Sarah Kirby-Yung, another new councillor who has graduated from the park board.
And just-elected NPAer Lisa Dominato also said that, although she supports the introduction of more density and duplexes to the city, “what I heard was concern about the process – that’s certainly top of mind.”
Among the other parties, OneCity’s Christine Boyle said that, while she doesn’t think duplexes will solve any housing-affordability problems, they’re also not a problem. But Jean Swanson, from the Coalition of Progressive Electors, said she is not in favour of the recent council change because it doesn’t protect tenants or have any mechanism to capture the profits made by landowners converting to duplexes.
That’s not the only decision likely to divide councillors.
Ms. Swanson wants the city to commit enough money to a proposed social-housing project on East Hastings Street so that all units in the building can be rented at subsidized rates.
However, NPA Councillor Melisssa De Genova said she’d be concerned about making changes after council already approved the rezoning for the building, based on a commitment from BC Housing and the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation to provide substantial subsidies.
“I’m going to find it difficult to support something if we risk losing funding,” said Ms. De Genova, now chair of the finance committee.
Also up for debate next week: Mr. Fry and Ms. Boyle’s motion to create a renter’s office at the city; Ms. Kirby-Yung’s motion to assess voting problems from the past election and come up with new ideas to fix them; and Ms. De Genova’s motion to speed up building permits and reduce fees for them.
As well, the councillors will be voting on whether to send the three new development projects that require rezoning to public hearings. There’s already been some concerned discussion about at least one of them.
“I think a lot of us have a lot of homework to do this weekend,” Mr. Wiebe said.